A brief history of Burma & why it became Myanmar
Myanmar, has had a long, and at times, traumatic history. We’re going to take a peek into its deep and incredible history and why it became Myanmar, (rather than it’s earlier name – Burma), today. From its earliest inhabitants, the Pyu in 849, right up until present day, we’ll give you a glimpse into this country’s past to help understand it as a country today.
Where is Myanmar?
Before we look at the history of this fascinating country, it’s useful to know where it is! Myanmar borders Thailand, China, Bangladesh, Laos and North East India to its north and east, with a long stretch of coastline to the west that fringes the Bay of Bengal & the Andaman Sea.
Although there are signs of cultures existing as early as 11,000 BCE (a long, long time ago..!) with findings of stone tools, domesticated animals and also following evidence of bronze age and iron age up until 200 BCE. The first inhabitants on record were the Pyu (arriving in Yunnan in the 2nd century BCE), who had their origins in present-day Qinghai and Gansu (China). They also established trade routes between China and India which introduced Buddhism to the area from South India. They founded most of the central city-states of Burma, creating roughly 18 states in the Irrawaddy valley.
According to early Chinese records, they were peaceful people who wore cotton-silk, rather than pure silk, so they weren’t harming the silkworms (they sound like our kind of people!). The Pyu remained part of the area until they became merged into the Burman kingdom of Pagan in the 11th century.
Pagan Dynasty to Taungoo Kingdom (849 - 1752)
The Burmans joined smaller raids on the Pyu states with the Nanzhao, and remained in upper Burma, creating small strategic settlements around the Chindwin River in the Irrawaddy valley by the mid-9th century to pacify the other inhabitants of the region over time. Over the next few hundred years, these settlements grew, allowing the Nanzhao to become part of the area with minimum conflict.
This led to the Pagan Empire’s rising in 1044 with the ascension of a new leader, Anawrahta Minsaw, uniting several kingdoms into one empire within 30 years. By the 12th century, Pagan had become a dominant power in south-east Asia alongside the Khmer Empire, Song dynasty of China, and Chola dynasty of India. Anawrahta – considered the Father of Burma – was responsible for developing Burma’s social, religious and economic foundations, which are still part of today’s culture. However, in 1277, the Mongols began to invade and weaken the area after seeing cracks in the crown’s control of the country and by 1297 the Myinsaing Kingdom, a neighbouring kingdom who had managed to fend off the Mongol invasions, had taken over.
The Myinsaing Kingdom was to be short-lived, and the area was split into four smaller kingdoms: Ava, Hanthawaddy, Shan States and Arakan. This became a turbulent period, with rebellions and external attacks. There was little stability in the region until 1599, where the country was reunified as a Restored Taungoo Kingdom (which included some areas of current Thailand and China). The then King, Thalun, rebuilt the chaotic country and ordered the first census in 1635, introduced a legal and political system, as well as appointing governorships to the Irrawaddy valley. This stability created a prosperous economy for almost a century, and the kingdom was at peace for the most of what remained of the 17th century.
A time of turmoil: the Konbaung dynasty (1752 - 1885)
After the fall of Taungoo, the Restored Hanthawaddy Kingdom which followed was faced with a new dynasty in Shwebo – the militarian Konbaung dynasty. King Alaungpaya, the leader of the Kongbaung, went on to entirely remove the Hanthawaddy, and reunite Burma, making the largest empire in its history.
What was to follow was a series of wars with Siam and China, before turning their attention to the west as they looked to expand the empire.
With China being a much bigger force to the east, and Siam gaining more ground in the south-east, King Bodawpaya (the fourth son of Alaungpaya), decided west was the best option to increase the size of his empire. Several invasions were successful during his lifetime – conquering Arakan, Manipur and Assam, which now gave them a border with British India. In 1819, King Bagyidaw, (Bodawpaya’s grandson and next on the throne) was faced with several rebellions in Manipur, instigated by the British who protected the Indian territories of the border. This led to a series of three Anglo-Burmese Wars between 1824 and 1886. Each resulted in further control of Burma by the British Empire, which ended in the annexation of Upper Burma and the entire country becoming a province of India under the control of the British Raj.
This was also when the British named its new colony “Burma” after the Burmans, being the largest cultural group, and it had been called “Birmania” by the Portuguese which had been adopted by the British as well.
Despite a constant resistance during this time, Burma would not see independence again for over 60 years until after WWII.
World War II - Japanese Occupation & Communist uprising
The chaos of the Second World War opened up several unexpected options to the Burmese people. Some believed that helping the British could be exchanged for increased control of their country again, while others wanted to avoid the war altogether. Aung San, co-founder of the Communist Party of Burma and others in a movement known as Thakins, were part of the latter. Aung San became a key figure in Burma’s future, working with several groups including politically active monks and Ba Maw’s Poor Man’s Party, the Freedom Bloc, and eventually the Burma Independence Army (BIA). The BIA was set up in anticipation of the Japanese invasion of Burma in 1942 and formed a tempory government in some areas. The Japanese decided that having a political uprising in Burma would be beneficial to them, so alongside Ba Maw and Aung San, worked to create the Burma Defence Army (BDA) out of the BIA, with promises of independence after the war. It became apparent to the BDA and Aung San that independence was never really going to happen, and Ba Maw had been deceived.
This led to negotiations with several Communist & Socialist leaders to create the Anti-Fascist Organisation in August 1944, which identified fascism the main enemy and called for the Allies and British cooperation for temporary support to rebel against the Japanese.
The alliance resulted in the Japanese being routed out of Burma by May 1945, and the forces were disarmed following the Kandy conference in Ceylon (present-day Sri Lanka) in September 1945.
During the Japanese occupation, 170,000 – 250,000 civilians died.
Post War - Burma's Independence
Following the war, Aung San continued to be pivotal to Burma’s future, and independence from the British was promised with the signing of the Aung San-Attlee Agreement on the 27th of January 1947. Unfortunately, U Saw, a conservative pre-war Prime Minister of Burma had Aung San, and several of his cabinet assassinated later that year on the 19th of July (which has been commemorated as Martyr’s Day ever since). Independence was to eventually come to fruition on January 4th, 1948 as carried out by the next Socialist leader, Thakin Nu.
Recent times - Independent Burma & Socialist State of Ne Win
Between 1948 and 1962, Burma started to build economic strength and after some initial support from outside swiftly began to stand on its own. This period saw increased political instability in Burma, a Communist victory in China in 1949, and northern areas of Burma becoming more influenced by this presence. The country was beginning to become unsettled.
The situation was calmed temporarily by Ne Win’s Caretaker Government, which made way for a new general election in 1960. Unfortunately, this swiftly led to Ne Win staging a coup d’etat, arresting several leaders, and setting up his vision of a Socialist state run by the Union Revolutionary Council.
There were several protests in 1962, including a peaceful student protest at Rangoon University. Over 100 students were killed when the military stepped in, and this was to mark the starting point of a period of unrest and uncertainty that would change the country forever.
Ne Win quickly set up his ideal Socialist state, isolating it from the rest of the world, establishing a one-party system and nationalised commerce and industry.
The 8888 (08/08/88) Uprising
Even though he retired as president in 1981, Ne Win remained in power until 1988. The economy started to grow again as the government begun to accept more foreign aid, but falling commodity prices and rising national debt eventually lead to demonetisation of particular bank notes which wiped out the savings of most of the people of Burma.
This caused riots all over the country, leading to the military taking over and ignoring the constitution in favour of martial law.
The 8888 Uprising (08/08/88) began with people all over the country protesting in the name of pro-democracy. Amongst the chaos, the daughter of Aung San (who had done so much in the name of independence and freedom), Aung San Suu Kyi, arose as a natural leader, appealing for help to end the protests and deaths.
The road to democracy – Myanmar is born
The military controlled government changed Burma to Myanmar in 1989, seeing an end to the Socialist state and putting the past behind. The name referred to the official name of the country in Burmese “Myanma” which has its origins from Mranma, the name the Bamas gave themselves when first arriving from the Irrawaddy River in the 9th century. This was intended to be a more inclusive name for the rest of the ethnic groups in the country, as it was not only the Burmese living in Burma.
In 1990, the National League for Democracy (NLD) beat the National Unity Party (NUP – The successor of the previous government) with 90% of the vote lead by Aung San Suu Kyi. However, the military continued to interfere, holding Aung San Suu Kyi (who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991) under house arrest. International pressure and economic sanctions saw the military replace General Than Shwe with Saw Maung, who released some political leaders but left Aung San Suu Kyi’s house arrest in place until 1995. Further tensions saw Aung San Suu Kyi back under house arrest from September 2000 until May 2002.
Myanmar’s democratic reforms (2011-2016) are still ongoing, including the release of Suu Kyi, establishing of the amnesties, Human Rights Commission for over 200 political prisoners, releasing control of media and press as well as currency regulations.
In the 2012 by-elections, Suu Kyi’s party (National League for Democracy) won 41 out of 44 seats, including her own seat in the Burmese Parliament. In the 2015 general election, the NLD won an absolute majority of seats in both chambers of the Burmese parliament, ensuring that its candidate would become president. However, with Aung San Suu Kyi constitutionally barred from being president, in 2016 her trusted and loyal companion Htin Kyaw was nominated to be the first non-military president of the country since 1962, with Aung San Suu Kyi becoming State Counsellor (similar to the position of Prime Minister).
Why Rickshaw call it Myanmar?
So why do we at Rickshaw call Burma by its more recent name?
Myanmar has been through a lot, and although the name change came under military rule, it saw an end to a one-party Socialist state and aimed to make the country more inclusive to all of its people. It also began a time of change and hope for the people of Myanmar, to have a democracy of their own and bring in an era of much-needed peace.
Calling Myanmar, Burma (we feel at Rickshaw) is a bit of reminder of its past when it needs to look forward. However, it’s a hugely complex and controversial topic, knowing about Myanmar’s history helps us see that it’s never as simple as first thought. Whether you call it Burma or Myanmar, we can all agree that it’s an incredible country.
Why visit Myanmar?
With a tapestry of incredible history, religions, landscapes and cultures, why wouldn’t you want to go! However, there’s a point here which is bigger than that. With a heart-breaking past, visiting a country that is finding its way in the world, bringing tourism gives the economy a much-needed boost, makes it more meaningful for us, and hopefully you too.
See Myanmar with us
Myanmar is a treasure chest of culture, history and sights. Discover the real Myanmar with help from our specialists who’ll take the stress out of your holiday.